American popular culture frequently defaults to the insufferably crass, indolent, self-indulgent and, often enough, downright ugly. America is morally and artistically exhausted. Each new cringe-worthy effort excreted onto the Top 40 list steals away some of the nation’s dignity and leaves her people a little less capable of experiencing genuine wonder. In this poisonous, suffocating context, thoughtful art comes as an antidote, a blast of cold, fresh air. Maya Hawke’s folksy debut album, Blush, provides just such a blast. Her songs range from wistful and melancholic to joyful and frenetic, always with an element of play rendered infectious by a voice that is all silk and smoke. Most importantly, Hawke has a fine ear for language and her lyrics surprise in the way good poetry surprises: with counter-intuitive imagery that is at once accessible and intimate. Some striking examples: Like rain in my creeping hand (“Menace”); I’d hold you like soft water / Holds the sun against the sky (“Hold the Sun”). And especially the opening verse of “River Like You”:
I’ve loved a river like you before
I’m the one to blame
He washed away my cleverness
And hallowed out my name
I’ve loved a river like you before
The deep and thundering kind
He rushed into my belly and
Clouded over my eyes
When we speak over Zoom, Maya shares that her songs all began as poems, which she has been writing most of her life “as a private form of expression and personal therapy.” This makes perfect sense. Listening to her songs, one gets the sense of a writer wrestling with herself, balancing expressive emotion with a search for self-knowledge. While the album began as a pet project, working on it provided Hawke a creative outlet when she first began auditioning for film roles, a way to stay artistically productive during the dead time between projects.
And those projects have been quite interesting. She left Juilliard in her first year to accept a role as Jo March in PBS’s 2017 adaptation of Little Women (Jo, of course, was her favorite character from the novel). Shortly thereafter she landed a role in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood. But her breakout role was as Robin Buckley in the third season of Netflix’s smashing hit, Stranger Things.
Naturally, Hawke’s parents—Uma Thurman and Ethan Hawke—are quite proud. In fact, it was in her parents’ “hootenanny living room scene” that Hawke’s interest in music began to catch fire. “We’d come home,” she reminisces, “ and sit on the couch and play songs, and if we had friends over, we’d all play songs together and work on family harmonies.” Music even became a tool for managing dyslexia, which Hawke struggled with throughout childhood. She would set to melodies anything she needed to remember—a practice that evolved into songwriting. Even though her music has taken a professional turn, Hawke insists that she doesn’t see it as a career but as a “joy project,” a source of catharsis and deep connection with her family.
Hawke’s taste is well-developed and eclectic, and she cites Lucinda Williams, Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, Fleetwood Mac, Wilco, Bright Eyes, Phoebe Bridgers, and Frankie Cosmos among influences for the album. “Fiona Apple is another big one for me,” she says excitedly, “She’s so inventive and when I hear her observations about the world, I’m always like ‘Fuck!’ When I listened to her song ‘Under the Table’ from her new record, I related to it so profoundly that I wished I could have dragged it out of my stomach as my own. I feel what she’s saying so much and it’s so specific and so true.”
Jesse Harris, Maya’s principal collaborator, was a regular at her family’s hootenannies. Ethan Hawke and Harris are long-time friends; Harris even wrote the music for the second film Hawke directed, The Hottest State, which Hawke adapted from his first novel. The film’s score continues to be an inspiration for Maya, as does the rest of Harris’s work, which has included long collaborations with Norah Jones and Conor Oberst. Harris took an interest in her poetry and encouraged her to experiment with setting it to music. “But it was only after I left drama school that I really wanted to work on it again,” Hawke shares, “I reached out to him for some advice on a song I had written, and then we just kept working together. It was a really easy collaboration. And we kept doing it until we had so many songs that we felt like we had to do something with it.”
Hawke’s poetry writing became a more serious endeavor when she took classes with Marty Skoble, an acclaimed poetry teacher at Saint Anne’s School in Brooklyn who models his classes after the famed Iowa Writers Workshop. “Rhyme is always the backbone of the poetry I write,” shares Hawke, “I love rhyme. It’s like candy to me when you can come up with a rhyme that’s original.” As a lover of Shakespeare, Hawke also pays close attention to rhythm and meter, but she prefers the flexibility of free verse to the formal requirements of songwriting. “A poem’s rhythm can be a little bit looser, but with song you really have this strict structure. If you deviate from it, it has to be intentional.”
One of her early challenges was learning how to write an effective chorus, which requires really understanding the song’s core thought or feeling. “The backbone the song is that phrase that deserves to be repeated. It’s a kind of classic acting advice thing: if your character says the same line twice or three times, or repeats the same word, it means something different every time, and it means that that word or line is important to them. So when you’re writing a chorus, you have to come up with a phrase that warrants being said over and over again. Then you frame that chorus with a verse that changes or deepens its meaning.”
Creating art can be a spiritual experience: the act of successfully bringing a vision in your head to life in the world touches on something transcendent. When I write fiction, such moments are intensely private, even as they seem to open me to a deeper connection with reality. I was thus interested to learn that Hawke experiences this sort of transcendence primarily when collaborating with others. “My holiest moment is definitely on the first song of the album, ‘Generous Heart.’ It was one of the last songs we recorded, and it took me the whole album of re-cording to figure out how to have confidence in the studio. When I figured out I could communicate with musicians in the room as if I was directing a scene, that I could speak to them with emotional terminology—with color, with metaphor, and to describe the way in which a note should be played or a part should be played—I felt so much freer.
I told our fantastic guitarist Will Graff that I needed the opening chord to be the emotional backbone of the song, and I want it to feel like you have a feeling that is so positive, so joyful, so exulting, but it can’t escape your body, you can’t let it out, and it gets stuck inside of you and becomes cancerous. So the tension should build and the positivity should almost turn in on itself. I explained that to him and sat down and put my headphones... and I wept while he tracked it in. I felt so profoundly understood by this person, and I also felt confident in the recording studio and in my ability to express myself and to have a good idea of how a song should sound, an idea that felt right to me. That was probably my holiest experience.
“But sometimes my poetry writing process feels a little like that as well. It often comes in a rush or a flood. It’s like six pages long and I edit it down over a month, but that first flood always feels like orgasmic-amazing. Even when most of it is shit, it’s when it first comes out of you that’s so fun. But that feeling doesn’t come around very often.”
Hawke is fond of explaining her musical process with analogies from acting and sees a lot of cross-pollination between her artistic worlds. Most essential for her is an appreciation for the collaborative nature of both arts. Harris wrote the melodies for most of the songs on Blush—with Maya’s input and tinkering, of course. “There’s still an element of being on a team which is how I always feel about acting,” she attests, “To make a good movie, everyone has to come together and do their best work. It’s really that teamwork and collaboration that I thrive on.”
One might suspect from this that Hawke is an extrovert, but she insists that this isn’t quite accurate. “I’m definitely private. I’m a person with secrets and a person who values her alone time and a person who doesn’t always behave in a social situation exactly the way I am feeling. Socially, I’m more introverted and particular about who I want to be around.”
It’s when it comes to work and creative expression, though, that Hawke thrives around others, even if the environment is chaotic or demanding.“I don’t want to be alone in a room writing,” she says resolutely, “I love to write more than any- thing, but the life of a writer doesn’t necessarily appeal to my strengths.” The more dynamic her workspace is, the more opportunity there is for a feeling of “togetherness,” the better Maya feels about her work. Especially when she’s working with people she’s close to. “I have co-writers and collaborators from high school that I still write with and work with. My family and I have a wonderful shared language of creativity. My dad is my greatest teacher and advisor. My mother is also wonderful, but my dad definitely asserts himself creatively in my life in a different way.”
Hawke’s parents have been a great help to her as she has navigated tough decisions about her career. They’ve developed strong instincts through trial and error and have been imparting that wisdom. Although her parents can be “vast wells of nonsense” as much as wisdom—she wouldn’t have it any other way—Hawke is grateful to have had twenty years of vicarious industry experience in addition to her own three years of professional acting. “I’ve learned more from observing them than I have from any kind of kernel of advice.”
In keeping, Hawke is doing well handling the expectations that have come with entering her parents’ profession. “I definitely think that there is a higher bar in some ways, but there’s also a lower bar in other ways. There are just all these contradictions. There’s a lower bar in that it’s easier for me to get attention than it would be for most any other person because of whereI come from, but there’s also a higher bar in that people are much more inclined to notice that and to say you don’t deserve this. But to me, I just take that as a scary, wonderful challenge. I don’t question the integrity of my passion. Like, I’m not in this for the wrong reasons, I’m in it because it’s the thing that I love the most in the world.”
Ideally, Hawke wants to use the pressure of expectations to drive her to perform her best. “I don’t expect to ditch the asterisks in front of my name anytime soon. I think it will be years of doing work, of making mistakes and doing bad work and good work, of growing and learning, and becoming better at my job before I can exist in this world as an individual. I think that’s an okay price to pay given the opportunities that I’ve had.”
Fortunately, stress from others’ expectations figures less into Hawke’s life than most might imagine. Her life in general has been “profoundly more ordinary than people make it out to be,” whether they’re romanticizing it or being cynical. “It’s so much less fancy than people imagine,” she laughs, “so much less glamorous. In a lot of ways, it was a profoundly ordinary familial situation, with its troubles and pains and break-ups.” People’s assumptions do, however, make it “difficult to go out into the world with a blank slate, to just show up in the world as yourself.”
Making music seems to be an important avenue through which Maya is overcoming this difficulty. “I’m definitely glad that my parents haven’t put out records that mine can be compared to. It’s a nice relief because their records would be phenomenal and brilliant and it would be impossible to ever compare.” But she stresses that she doesn’t feel a need to escape her parents’ shadow. “If I was trying to break out of my parent’s shadow I would go and be a marine biologist. I’m grateful for the opportunities and I’m proud of the work that they’ve done and the creatives that they are. I’m just following my instincts. In my experience, when you make choices based on what your instincts tell you to do, you’ll have no regrets, whether things go profoundly well or profoundly badly. It’s when you do things against your gut that you’ll have regrets.”
Family has been a “grounding force” throughout Maya’s life, and especially now during the pandemic, which she describes as a sort of “confined chaos.” “I find myself totally exhausted everyday and have barely left the house. You’re exhausted by the news, exhausted by your email, exhausted by the fact that you’re not talking to your friends or because you’re talking to your friends too much. But I’ve found tremendous comfort in my bonds with my parents, my siblings, my grandparents. Even when there’s trouble, I have real faith in the endurance of those relationships because there’s a back- bone of unconditional love.”
Despite feeling a bit isolated at her mother’s home in Woodstock, New York, Maya has remained productive with poetry writing, practicing guitar, planning for her next album, and has been investing in self-reflection. “I’m always more creative amidst chaos. In fact, I was on my phone with my therapist yesterday sharing that I was going through a minor, personal thing this week, and that I don’t know how to deal with these feelings of heartache because my normal way of dealing with this would be to escape those feelings by creating a chaotic scenario, and creativity responding to that chaos, and then moving through it.” But social distancing has precluded her normal coping strategy, which involves friends. “So I have to figure out a different way to respond to my own internal chaos rather than externalizing it.” Although sitting still and writing is difficult for her, she’s finding new reserves of discipline and is excited to connect with Harris and start recording the new songs that have come out of this summer.
Our political moment is overwhelming for everyone and Hawke is no exception. “I feel a social responsibility to be more plugged in than I want to be. My instinct is to put my pillow over my head and hide, but I just can’t. There’s a Buddhist teaching that being enlightened doesn’t mean that you feel no pain, but that you can feel all the pain around you and yet be okay. I’m by no means enlightened, but I’m trying to practice opening my heart to all the stories I’m hearing, absorb them and grow in compassion, but still be able to function, put my sister in her pajamas and read Harry Potter bedtime stories with every inch of creativity I have left in me at the end of the day.”
While she feels a responsibility to use her platform to promote social justice—she’s especially concerned about the disproportionate impact COVID-19 is having on Black Americans, and has attended Black Lives Matter protests and donated money to related charities—Hawke is wary of speaking out too much before she becomes more informed. “Something that I’ve been thinking about a lot this summer is that I’m a relatively uneducated child. I’m twenty-two years old, I didn’t go to college, I spent most of high school reading Jane Austen and William Blake, so I don’t see myself as a person who should speak on this.”
She expresses similar self-doubt in her song “Bringing Me Down”:
Feeling dumb or at least unlearned
Under a pile of books, I’m burdened
They’re small ideas if you look aroun
So I must be weak if they’re bringing me down
However, it seems to me that, rather than bringing her down, self-doubt has occasioned an admirable humility and discernment, “I genuinely believe that we should be making ac- tivists celebrities rather than trying to make celebrities the voice of all activism,” she shares, “We should be amplifying the voices of people who dedicate their lives to having valuable insights on matters of justice.”
Commendable as this perspective is, I would be remiss not to note that anyone who has spent years reading and rereading Jane Austen and William Blake likely has gained a fuller educaCoveragetion—and especially a fuller moral education—than most college graduates. A case in point is Hawke’s dedication to identifying gaps in her knowledge of the world and actively educating herself. “I’d like to step a little bit out of the past and into the present,” she explains, “I’ve spent most of my intellectual energy on old books, and I haven’t read that much new fiction or biography. So I think getting involved in the present and being a little bit less of a wannabe 70s baby would be a good next step for me.”
Whether she’s a “wannabe 70s baby” or not, Hawke’s self-deprecation is always good-natured; perhaps it’s even a tool to help her maintain her connection to the “profoundly ordinary” aspects of her life. She is certainly keenly aware of the propensity of fame to warp the way others see us and the way we see ourselves. Her song “Coverage” gets at this in the first verse:
Here is light in little rooms
Water colors, camera moves
Fooling you into the myth
Even my little laugh’s a wish
We all have our myths of self, of course. Even self-awareness requires a certain degree of myth-making to achieve. As Maya Hawke’s career unfolds, as she continues to pursue self-knowledge and self-creation, I hope the process is filled with “joy projects” like Blush. And when she finds herself ensconced in myths, may they be good myths.
Written by Justin Lee
Photographed by Kat Irlin
Styled by Sarah Slutsky
Hair: Tim Nolan